Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Armistice Turns 100



We took these photographs on a cold rainy day at the Somme Battlefields, in June 2016. 

That year marked the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, which actually comprised a series of bloody trench-warfare battles between the British and French armies, and the armies of the German Empire.  

Across nearly five months, three million soldiers fought and more than one million were killed or wounded.  On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were fatalities.  Most historians agree that neither side won.

As is the case in many World War I cemeteries, more than one thousand of the headstones bear the inscription, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God

Here are two quotations that I like.

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. 



Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.**






*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).
**Last verse of MCMXIV, by British poet laureate Philip Larkin (1964).

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The First Lady is upstairs today




Now that the White House has celebrated Halloween, Melania Trump will retreat once more to the second-floor family residence.  Apart from the turkey pardon and Christmas parties, she probably will appear infrequently in public until 2019. 

From the start, this First Lady has been unusually remote; socially and emotionally unavailable to the American people.  She does not wish to conform to the modern conventions associated with the First Lady, which emerged around 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

Edith Roosevelt became the first president’s wife to grant routine press coverage of herself and her children.  Such access increased over time.  During the past three decades, as the media grew and the realm of First Ladies scholarship intensified, historians have drawn ever greater attention to the role of the president’s wife, raising expectations that the women will engage fully with the public.
             
But now, nearly 20 months into the Trump presidency, we must conclude that the First Lady is most interested in engaging with a very small circle of friends and family.  

Historically, she is not alone. For antecedents, look to the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century.  One might not recognize the names outright, for the women are obscure. Just like Melania Trump, they were reluctant to leave the second floor of the White House.
             
The women were Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce, three ladies who never wanted their husbands to run for president and definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city that was flourishing at the edge of a swamp.

Margaret Taylor
          
Not everyone regarded the city with dread.  By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
             
Dolley died in 1849, the year before Margaret Taylor arrived at the executive mansion.  But it mattered not to Margaret, Abigail and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
             
To be sure, they had reasons.
             
Margaret grieved for her daughter, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.”

Jane Pierce
          
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before her husband was sworn in as president.
             
Abigail’s health was poor.

In turn, the three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor.  They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners.
             
The wives of presidents Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The ideal virtues were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.

Abigail Fillmore
           
Melania Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling took her where no First Lady has gone before, so one might cross off purity. Her manner is largely compliant, however, and she prefers to be at home.
             
And so there exists an odd affinity on the second floor of the White House. 

On one hand, here is a woman who owes her rise to the twenty-first century’s lack of inhibitions.  On the other hand, there are three Victorian ladies dressed in black gowns with stiff lace bodices, bent over their embroidery and asking for smelling salts.   


Antebellum White House


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Wonderful World of Waldemar Kaempffert

An ambitious writer, Waldemar Kaempffert 

Think fearlessly of Waldemar Kaempffert, one of America’s first and most prolific science writers, striding onto the scene.  His blue eyes are brilliant and his hair prematurely gray. 

In 1919 he scolded the New York Times about the proper usage of the word “blimp”:

The R-34 is a rigid dirigible of the Zeppelin type. It has very little in common with the “blimp.”

Really, how could he help but correct the mistakes that assaulted him at every turn?  Not only was he bright and analytical.  He also held strong opinions about nearly everything:

The existence of canals on Mars,

Psychopathic laboratories in prisons,

the patent rights of inventors who worked for large corporations . . .

Waldemar Bernhard Kaempffert was born ambitious in New York City in 1877, the son of a German immigrant father and a Russian-German mother.  He received honors and awards all through his years in public school on the Upper West Side.

Soon after graduating from City College in 1897, Waldemar joined Scientific American as an assistant editor.  This gave him quite a perch, not to mention prestige.  He went on to earn an LL.B. from NYU while continuing at the magazine.  In 1905 he published his first major article, “The Protective Mimicry of Insects,” in Booklovers Magazine.   

Illustration from Kaempffert's
article about insects

Then he was off and running, covering carbon and Tungsten light, weather forecasting, alternative uses for pneumatic tubes – everything new that emerged through the scientific method or from someone’s crazy imagination.

For Waldemar had arrived at his profession at just at the right moment.  Radioactivity was revealed in 1895.  That led to the discovery of atomic particles.  The microscope lit up ever more infinitesimal lifeforms.  And the First World War would spur major advances in technology and medicine.  Waldemar was among the first Americans to grasp the extent to which German scientists had outpaced the United States and England. 

During the war, Waldemar left Scientific American to become editor of Popular Science Monthly, where he stayed until the mid-twenties when he joined the New York Times.  On the beat, he covered the invention of television and the radiotelephone, and the first transatlantic call between London and New York. 

Waldemar would write thousands of articles on scientific topics as well as several books.

He did have a break from journalism.  In 1928 he was called to Chicago where the businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, planned to create a science museum inside the last remaining building of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition.  During a trip to Munich in 1911, the multimillionaire had been deeply impressed by the Deutsches Museum, which was -- still is -- the world's largest museum devoted to science and technology.

 Museum of Science and Industry, 1930s

In need of major repairs, the exposition building was located in Jackson Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood along Lake Michigan.  Ultimately it would be recast in limestone, thus keeping its Beaux Arts exterior. 

Rosenwald charged Waldemar with designing exhibitions and assembling the curatorial staff.  The mission of the new museum – like the one in Munich – would be to demonstrate how science and technology transform culture and society.  

By 1930, Waldemar’s wife Carolyn, a concert pianist, had joined him in Chicago and the couple moved into an apartment hotel just a few blocks from the museum.  But something went wrong; not quite a scandal but certain irregularities that led the board of directors to push Waldemar out.  In 1931 he headed back east to ask the Times editors to give him back his job, and they agreed. 

Carolyn died a few years later.  

 In his later years
Until his own death in 1956, Waldemar remained busy writing several stories each week. In his obituary, the Times quoted Waldemar himself, who often said that his function was “to make science so clear that the scientists could understand it.”

A childless widower, Waldemar bequeathed more than $25,000 to Memorial Hospital for cancer research.*  He left $5,000 to Dr. Elizabeth Baker, a social scientist at Columbia University who studied the effect of technology on jobs.  He left $2,500 to Marie Mossoba Berlinghoff, his assistant of nearly 25 years. 

The remainder went to a stage actress named Sophie Wilds, who seems to have pursued a Bohemian life from her little brick house in Greenwich Village!


*Now Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Manhattan Storm

A sense of foreboding nationwide

*Photo taken last night

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lending Firelight in Montana



We went to Montana to visit friends.  They live in a hillside house that overlooks Flathead Lake.  There’s a dock made of weathered wood that reaches east toward the morning sun.  The light dances like diamonds on the glacial water. 

We faced the smoke-shrouded mountains from a spot so small that it is merely a Census Designated Place (CDP).  In the distance on Wild Horse Island, bighorn sheep and mule deer ambled around with the occasional brown bear, although we couldn’t see them. 

The property has been in the family for several generations.  Therefore, a great-great grandmother who taught at the local school must certainly have run into Frank Bird Linderman, who came to the territory in 1885 from Elyria, Ohio, at the age of 16.  Working as a trapper, in search of adventure, he was one of millions to whom the West beckoned as the American century loomed on the horizon.

Married in Missoula in 1893, the father of three children, Frank went on to be an assayer, furniture salesman, journalist, sculptor, and politician.  But it was the culture and history of Montana’s Native Americans that became his passion.



By 1917, when Frank built a cottage for his family on Flathead Lake, he had already published his first book, Indian Why Stories: Sparks from War Eagle’s Lodge-Fire. 

“Why the Chipmunk’s Back is Striped,” he explained in one story; “Why the Mountain-Lion is Long and Lean,” “Why Indians Whip the Buffalo Berries from the Bushes,” and much more. 

Western artist Charles Russell, widely admired for his paintings of cowboys and Indians, was Frank’s good friend and illustrated his books. 

The Flathead, Kootenai, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Cree and Crow – Frank interviewed members of the tribes using sign language and interpreters.  The legends he learned appeared in Bunch-Grass and Blue Joint (1921), Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows (1930) and his other books. 


Frank Bird Linderman, the Chippewa medicine man Big-rock,
and the artist Charles M. Russell in Montana
(1916)

Frank wanted to “write of the old days as they were, so men would appreciate and not forget,

to lend firelight,

to tell and not cheat in the telling.”

His affinity with Flathead Lake, which is bordered by mountains on the west and east, prompted him to tell his daughter:

“I know every inch of that country on both sides of the ranges.  I have camped in every place on the shore of the lake when Manitou was king.”

Who was Manitou? 

Among Native Americans, Manitou is a Great Spirit, a life force, the creator.  Manitou also refers to the things that are most valued in life.  

Manitou is a celebration of wonderful occurrences.  It is a rite of passage.  It is stumbling across a huckleberry bush on the way up the mountain, or the glint of a rainbow trout in the Flathead River.




*Linderman was not alone in his desire to document the lives of Native Americans.  The photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis launched his North American Project around 1900, ultimately producing 40,000 photographs of 80 tribes, 10,000 wax recordings, and the 20-volume book, The North American Indian.

**Frank Linderman died in California in 1938 after years of poor health.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

George Sylvester Viereck's Busy Life




George Sylvester Viereck's magazine, The Fatherland (1914)

Imagine the scene outside his father-in-law’s home, about 20 people milling around in the warm August night, shouting that he should leave the city and never return. 

Did George Sylvester Viereck push aside the drapes to peer out the parlor window?  Apparently the presence of two policemen guarding the front door did not reassure him of his own safety.

And so as the dog days waned in the summer of 1918, George left his wife and two sons with her father and returned to the city. From there he would continue to edit his two magazines, The International and The Fatherland.   In their pages he strongly supported Germany throughout the Great War, which the U. S. had entered in April 1917.

Later, his work would be labeled propaganda.

The child of a German actress and – purportedly – an unacknowledged son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George immigrated to the U. S. at the age of 13.  Known as Sylvester or “G.S.V.,” he graduated from City College of New York with literary aspirations, having published a small volume of verse in 1904 while he was still a student.  In 1907, George published a second collection of poems which won national attention.

George Sylvester Viereck as a young man

After college, George traveled frequently to his native land.  He developed a particular interest in foreign affairs and became a German nationalist. 

In 1915, agitated by the debate over U. S. involvement in the war, George helped found a nationwide antiwar group called Friends of Peace.  The group immediately demanded that the U. S. stop supplying ammunition to England and that England lift its blockade of German ships. 

Friends of Peace wasn’t really a pacifist organization.  Rather, it intended to prevent an alliance between the U. S. and England.  Its members were largely Americans of German and Irish descent who had a natural – understandable – antipathy toward England.  They included scholars, clergy, publishers, and business executives.

The group held rallies in Chicago, New York, and other cities.  Meanwhile, President Wilson campaigned for a second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us out of War.”  Friends of Peace did not trust Wilson and endorsed the Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes (later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).

George led a busy life.  A prolific writer – novels and memoirs in addition to poetry and international affairs – he also lectured widely.  Over time he developed a reputation for being anti-American – hence the angry neighbors outside his father-in-law’s home – but that did not seem to bother him.  

The Fatherland became The American Weekly (1918)

After the war, Congress investigated how Germany had used propaganda in the U. S., and George was named as a saboteur.  American agents showed evidence that he had advance knowledge of Germany’s plans to sink the Lusitania.  But there were no consequences, and George resumed writing, turning his anger toward Wilson, the League of Nations, and reparations. 

In the early 1920s, George made his first visit to Europe since before the war.  He stayed for eight months, scoring interviews with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Kaiser, who was now in exile in the Netherlands.
 
His 1923 interview with Hitler occurred just a few months before the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted Nazi coup in Munich.  But the putsch failed and Hitler was imprisoned for nine months, passing the time writing Mein Kampf.   

In the course of the interview, which did not see the light of day until 1932 when it was published in Liberty Magazine (another pro-German magazine), Hitler railed against Bolshevism and Marxism. 

“In my scheme of the German state, there will be no room for the alien, no use for the wastrel, for the usurer or the speculator, or anyone incapable of productive work,” he told George.

Back in the U. S., George emerged as an unabashed supporter of Hitler and registered as a foreign agent.  He established a publishing house that issued isolationist, Anglophobic and pro-German books. But things caught up with him.  In 1941, just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, a grand jury indicted George for deliberately hiding the extent of his work as a propagandist.

He would serve about five years in prison, during which time his life fell apart.  His younger son was killed in the Battle of Anzio, and his wife left him after liquidating all of his assets and donating the money to Catholic and Jewish charities.  He died in the Berkshires in 1962.*

In his study hung portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, and Goebbels alongside those of Freud and Einstein.  “All these people I have known and admired,” he liked to tell visitors.  “The psychoanalyst, the scientist, and the dynamic force – all have been my friends.” 

After World War II

*He lived out his years with his son, Peter, a professor at Mt. Holyoke College, and Peter's family.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Our Public Library

Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Public Library, 1930s

Growing up in the 1960s, my brother and I visited the public library nearly every week. Sliding around the back seat of the car, pre-seat belt, we traveled across the city along streets named for great men like Lincoln.  My mother drove.

We always perked up when the car merged into a traffic circle with a Spanish-American War monument at its center.  That war lay in the deep unknown past.  But the various enterprises surrounding the circle were intensely familiar.  Coming first into view, a Congregational church with bright red doors.

"The Circle" -- 1980s

Further round the circle was the Artuso Pastry Shop, famous for its cannoli.  And then there was Chicken Delight.

“Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” according to the radio jingle, which our mother never heeded.

Oh, how we longed for Chicken Delight, fried or barbecued, delivery or 15-minute pickup.  No pots or pans – “just open and eat!”

Too bad.  On to the library.

Mount Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Founded in 1904 with a gift from the industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, the library was located on the south side of the city in a neighborhood that had declined as de facto segregation set in.

At the time of Carnegie’s gift, grand houses and spreading elms lined the blocks that would surround the library.  Nearby, commerce bustled along “the Avenue,” as residents called it. 

A small African-American community also flourished on this side of town.  However, by the end of World War II the black population had multiplied and many middle and upper class white residents of the south side had moved across the railroad tracks to the north side.

I’m sure some white people wanted to take the library with them.  But Grace Greene Baker would have opposed that idea.



Grace and her husband, Herbert, came out of small-town Ohio – a town called Bellevue, about 70 miles west of Cleveland.  She had already lived in several cities by the time she arrived at ours.  That was because Herbert was a rising executive in the printing business who previously held positions in St. Paul, Buffalo and other places.

Born in 1861, Grace became deeply interested in civic affairs while in her mid-30s.  She volunteered first with the National Consumers League, a reform organization co-founded by Jane Addams.  The group tackled the minimum wage, child labor laws, and other social problems.  By the time the Bakers landed in our suburb in 1900, it came naturally to Grace to commit herself as a public servant.  She plunged in while rearing four children.

What called to Grace Baker?  Two things: children’s welfare and the public library, both quintessential initiatives of the Progressive Era.  I imagine her steering a Model A along the Bronx River Parkway, on the way to address the county legislature about juvenile delinquency, newsboys and truancy. 

Eventually the public library would consume all of Grace’s time.  She served as board president for nearly 20 years and led a campaign for a much-needed addition to the building. 

As fiercely as the local paper editorialized against the addition, Grace fiercely explained its importance.  Just imagine the space – an expansive children’s department filled with light, plus large meeting rooms where members of the community could discuss issues and listen to lectures.  In the 1930s, however, persuading people to vote for a bigger library was like trying to get a new high school.  No one wanted to pay.

Finally, the bond referendum passed in 1936.

The 1936 addition 

Four years later, the city bestowed upon Grace its “Good Citizen” award.  On top of that, one of the paneled meeting rooms in the library addition was named the Grace Greene Baker Community Room.  

I now realize that this is where my father took me, in 1969, to hear a young woman named Anne Moody who had recently published a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi.  Anne Moody was a civil rights activist who worked with the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.  It made sense for her to speak in our city so riven by race.  The room was packed.

She started by reading the first paragraph of her book:

I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation.  Lots of Negroes lived on his place.  Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers.  We all lived in rotten two-room shacks.

Often statues and spaces memorialize people whose contributions to public life are modest to imperceptible.  But Grace Greene Baker absolutely deserved that room, and many years later so did Anne Moody.

Original dust jacket

*Grace Greene Baker died in 1949 and is buried in Bellevue, Ohio.  
**Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Old Priest

Our Lady of Victory Church

After Father Albinger died, the housekeeper discovered the will and the key in a creaky old desk in the rectory attic.  The city fathers scratched their heads at what was revealed.  If the old priest had accumulated so much property and money, why did he dress in threadbare garments and beg for food?

And how had Father Albinger, who presided for 25 years over a Roman Catholic Church in an undistinguished suburb of New York City, come to possess so many worldly goods?   

The mysterious priest departed from this earth on April 21, 1898, the first day of the Spanish-American War.  He died in Germany, from whence he had emigrated to the U.S. during the 1850s.  

After the housekeeper found the will, one of several documents tied up with a faded ribbon, she walked carefully down two flights of stairs in the dusty house, holding tightly to the banister.  She showed the will to a member of the parish, who told everyone in town, and almost instantaneously the County Treasurer came to call.  His name was T. Ellwood Carpenter and, having founded his own bank just a few years earlier, he knew all about assets.

 Home of T. Ellwood Carpenter, who investigated
Father Albinger's bequest

According to Carpenter, who opened the deposit boxes, Albinger left 25 purses, each containing 1,000 marks, and $10,000 in securities.  Carpenter also discovered that the priest owned several houses in New York and New Jersey.  He estimated that the estate was worth well over $100,000. 

Equally surprising, Albinger named one of his former altar boys as the sole legatee and executor.  However, no one in town could recall this person, Nicholas Lauer.

Nicholas grew up in far northern New York State, near Lake Ontario.  He was the son of a grocer whose family, like Albinger’s, emigrated from Prussia.  It is likely that the boy worked with Father Albinger at the time of the Civil War when the priest was in his mid-20s.  German communities flourished upstate and Father Albinger had the good fortune to serve as a pastor there before he hit the bigtime down near New York City.    

Now three decades later, here came the will.  Father Albinger’s sisters, who lived in Germany, refused to accept it.  In 1900 they contested the will in the county’s Surrogate’s Court. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the law still regarded expert witnesses with skepticism. Judge Silkman, who presided over the Albinger case, acknowledged that he was dubious about expert testimony.  Nonetheless, he would base his opinion on the reports of two men well-known in the field of handwriting and ink analysis.

David Nunes Carvhalo,
handwriting expert
William J. Kinsley and David Nunes Carvalho were contemporaries and competitors.  Kinsley made his reputation in financial fraud.  Carvalho, a Sephardic Jew, played an important part in the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal fraught with virulent anti-Semitism, which roiled France between 1894 and 1906.  Working long-distance from the U.S., David proved the forgery of a document, purportedly written by Captain Dreyfus, which was used as evidence to convict him.  

The Albinger matter also came down to forgery.  The priest’s signature didn’t match writing samples and there were suspicious erasures over the signatures of the witnesses, who happened to be Nicholas Lauer’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. 
  
It also puzzled the judge that the will, executed in 1897 in a restaurant at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village, occupied the lower half of a sheet of paper, the top having been sheared off.   

St. Denis Hotel, New York City, around 1890

Both Kinsley and Carvalho declared the Albinger will to be a forgery and Judge Silkman refused to probate it. 

A few years passed.  Then suddenly, lo and behold!  A second will by Father Albinger appeared in the basement of the dead priest’s former church.  This will, which was accepted and probated, divided the estate among the priest’s sisters, two parishioners, a sexton, the church – and Nicholas Lauer.

“Lauer is said to be the only man whom Father Albinger ever received in friendship,” a reporter wrote in a New York Times story.

On one hand, there is the dimly lit attic, its small windows looking down to the busy street.  On the other hand, there is the musty basement with dark corners and a cold stone floor.

And in the space between them, plenty of secrets.